Most of us are aware that about 1 crore people fled to various parts of West Bengal to take shelter in the refugee camps there during Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971. But have you ever wondered about the religious composition of this exodus of refugees?
In his book 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, the historian Srinath Raghavan reports that, by the end of April 1971, about 80% of the people fleeing for their lives were Hindu and 20% Muslim. He does not offer specific numbers on the religious persuasion of the 1 crore, which was the final tally of refugees, but it is possibly safe to say the vast majority of them were Hindu.
History of persecution
When Operation Searchlight, the unprovoked attack by the Pakistani military on the citizens of erstwhile East Pakistan, was initiated on March 25, 1971, the primary target was Hindu people and anyone else who worked for the cause of Bangali nationalism and heritage.
Among the first martyrs from the teachers of Dhaka University were Govinda Chandra Dev, the saintly professor of philosophy and Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, the venerable English literature professor, both sought out and shot by the military in cold blood. One of the first targets to be decimated by the army during that assault was the Jagannath Hall, a residential facility for Hindu students of Dhaka University.
According to Professor Ratanlal Chakraborty of the history department of Dhaka University, 42 people – four teachers, 34 students, and four employees of the hall – were murdered that dreadful night. Over the next two days, saints of Ramna Kalimandir and Shiv Barri and their family members, as well as an unknown number of others, were massacred by the Pakistani military just because they were Hindu.
Over the course of the war that lasted the following nine months, it is the Hindu community that was disproportionately targeted by the Pakistani invading forces. It is their houses that were primarily picked out to be looted and burned down, their women who were fair game to be raped. No one knows the precise number of people martyred and women raped during that devastating war, but we can rest assured that a startling percentage of them would be from the Hindu community.
That was then, however. The sovereign state of Bangladesh was founded with us saying never again. The dream was that all citizens of this state, which would be avowedly secular in nature, would be accorded the same rights and equal protection of the laws, as guaranteed by its constitution.
We observe the golden jubilee of our glorious independence this year. Why does the Hindu community still have to observe its religious festivities in a climate of anxiety and unease? Why do bigots still find it all too easy to spread hatred, practice vandalism and perpetrate violence against them? Why is equal protection of the laws still not available in practice to all communities?
The first step towards addressing this issue is addressing the extent of the problem. The plight faced by the Hindu community is not confined to them alone. We have seen similar situations faced by the Buddhists – the Ramu attacks of 2012 immediately come to mind – and the systematic oppression of the many ethnic groups based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, collectively called the Jumma people, have been continuing for decades.
The truth is, the secular sovereign state of Bangladesh has become the country of people who are Bangali by ethnicity and Muslim by religion. People of all other ethnic groups and religious persuasions live in this land at our indulgence.
And we are to blame for this. We, the privileged Bangali Muslims who are the numerical majority in this country, the independence of which we won at such tremendous cost 50 years ago, just so some ideas could be consecrated. The very ideas we see defiled when temples are vandalised and religious or ethnic communities who fall among the numerical minority have to live in fear.
It is we, the Bangali Muslim citizens of Bangladesh, who have let down our fellow citizens of all other ethnic groups and/or religious beliefs (and those who do not subscribe to any).
And make no mistake, the Bangladesh government has let them down too. It has failed to provide them equal protection of the laws, and more than that, it has not fostered the development of a society where a person’s ethnic origins and religious beliefs are immaterial. Where everyone is accorded equal respect as citizens of the sovereign state of Bangladesh.
This is the truth. Now, what are we going to do about it?
Tanvir Haider Chaudhury has spent most of his career as a banker and is now running a food and beverage company.
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.